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Sonoma County cannabis law firm expands to New York to advance legalization

Call it a move from the Redwood Empire to the Empire State.

The Law Offices of Omar Figueroa, which focuses on cannabis legal services, plans to hang a shingle in New York, considered an emerging market since voters approved adult recreational use last year. Medicinal marijuana became legal there in 2014.

The state is now working on establishing the framework of its licensing and taxation systems with rules for sales in place by the end of year, opening the door to recreational sales.

Andrew Kingsdale
Andrew Kingsdale

The law firm that began practicing out of Sebastopol in 2010 leases a 50-square-foot workspace in Brooklyn to be staffed and managed by attorney Andrew Kingsdale. Kingsdale, who’s also licensed in California and Massachusetts, has worked with the Sonoma County firm since 2018 and is licensed to practice law in New York for 15 years. Other employees are expected to come on board later. The law firm began taking clients Feb. 2.

The firm’s founder, Omar Figueroa, expressed enthusiasm about the transcontinental expansion as a means to follow his passion since attending Stanford Law School.

“We were told to follow our passions, so I followed my passion for cannabis by pursuing cannabis law, which is an exciting area of law filled with novel legal issues,” said Figueroa, who also considers himself a “cannabis connoiseur.” He has developed a curriculum to train cannabis sommeliers as a member of the Ganjier Circle, a club of cannabis enthusiasts.

“New York is going to be good for us as a law firm,” Figueroa said, referring to the Golden State’s 2016 passage of Proposition 64, approval of recreational cannabis sales.

The law firm plans to compete with other New York attorneys by using Figueroa’s expertise and highlighting Kingsdale’s membership in the Committee on Cannabis Law of the New York State Bar Association. He’s also the chairman of the Hemp and CBD Committee of the New York State Bar Association Cannabis Law Section.

Figueroa, Kingsdale and fellow lawyer Lauren Mendelsohn have active memberships in cannabis clubs, including Mendelsohn, who also serves as a director of the International Cannabis Bar Association out of Sacramento and on the Sonoma County Growers Alliance Board of Directors.

At the helm of the Sonoma County law firm, Figueroa is a cannabis advocate and knows the drill behind getting a cannabis business off the ground to operate legally. Last April, he published New York Cannabis Laws and Regulations 2021 available on Amazon and in Barnes & Noble as well as some local independent bookstores.

“I think New York can look at the experience from other states, so they won’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Will New York learn from California’s mistakes?

The National Cannabis Industry Association estimates the size of the New York market is about 5.2 million consumers, about half the size of California. The association analysts believe the Empire State stands poised to emerge as a force to be reckoned with, if it learns from the mistakes California has committed.

Association Economist Beau Whitney criticized how California became short-sighted in taxing the cannabis operators excessively because they thought they had “a cash cow, and they didn’t.

“Rather, they should have lowered the taxes to get more participation, and they’d make up for the revenue,” Whitney said, referencing the industry’s current turmoil in which operators are threatening tax revolt because of over taxation. Cannabis businesses have taken their pleas for an excise tax holiday and a complete dumping of the cultivation tax to the state’s executive and legislative branches of government.

Even though California differentiates itself from New York because it’s considered a “growth” state in which it’s a mass producer of the crop, the state is knee deep in a potential market collapse. Too much product with not enough places to sell it in has culminated in a plummeting wholesale price, Whitney said.

New York’s medicinal market is “not doing so great” but bigger dreams lie ahead of the grander, recreational-use market for those over the age of 18.

Its rules are expected to be in play by the end of 2022, with revenue anticipated to flow in the following year, Whitney added.

“What New York should learn from California’s challenges is they cannot tax significantly,” he said.

Whitney cited a newly-released survey commissioned by his firm in which cannabis operators were asked if they were making a profit. Forty-two percent surveyed on a national scale said they were, while only 26% of California’s cannabis businesses said they were.

“If (New York is) doing the opposite of what occurred in California, then they’ll be successful,” he said with a half-joking tone.

Morgan Fox, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana) indicated New York has another long-standing advantage.

“It’s the global commerce center of the world,” he said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

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